Zaji Obatala Zajradhara was arrested yesterday for allegedly threatening a shoot-out at the CNMI Department of Labor Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program headquarters on Capital Hill.
According to an official statement from DPS spokesperson Dre Pangelinan, police arrested Zajradhara at about 1:10pm and charged him with terroristic threatening. DPS later issued an all-clear at 3pm and released PUA and DOL employees who had been on lockdown since around 11am that same day.
A DPS statement said that it received a call at about 11:26am regarding a possible threat against the Department of Labor office on Capital Hill. Police dispatched to the scene met with a DOL employee who stated that they were on a phone call with a PUA applicant, later identified as Zajradhara, who allegedly stated that he would go up and begin shooting if he had a gun.
Zajradhara, previously named Steven Carl Farmer, is known for filing labor complaints against CNMI companies. At one point, the CNMI House of Representatives declared him “persona non grata.”
Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente later said in a statement that it was truly disappointing for an individual to threaten innocent staff who are simply doing their jobs, at a time leading to the holiday weekend.
“It is because of this incident that CNMI DOL had to close down operations and resume on Friday under heightened security,” she said.
Benavente pointed out that frustrations about the PUA program are rampant across the entire United States and that the CNMI is no different from concerns raised in Guam, Hawaii, and the other states and territories. “We have expressed our frustrations as a territorial government from the eligibility requirements, [ranging from policies] that prevent CWs from receiving benefits (which we have sought reconsideration) to the strict adjudication process and Web portal that have been out of the control of our local DOL,” she said.
However, Benavente said the CNMI government has fully prioritized the proper administration of the PUA program in line with federal requirements and standards. “The work has not stopped and, while PUA continues to be a complex program to administer across all states and territories, the CNMI DOL continues to manage this program in line with federal statutes and U.S. DOL regulations. There is a strict process outlined by our federal partners in order to ensure accountability of funds and to prevent fraud. We want to see all eligible PUA claims receive their benefits. That has been the goal from the start and we will continue to work to get all eligible CNMI claimants their benefits,” she said.
Benavente said that she is just as frustrated with the strict program but it is federal money that requires strict compliance. “We ask all eligible claimants to remain patient as over 100 employees at the CNMI PUA program are reviewing claims and expediting payments from Monday to Saturday until 7:30pm,” she said.
Benavente said over 100 employees from across government, including un-furloughed employees, have been assigned to assist in adjudication and troubleshooting errors in order to expedite payments so DOL continues to ask for patience.
“Along with the overall COVID-19 response, the entire administration has prioritized PUA payments to eligible claimants by mobilizing personnel and resources to fit the demands of this very complex program,” she said.
Benavente assures the community that while many states and territories are in worse conditions and some are still months behind in payment with their PUA programs, CNMI DOL is slated to have 81% of all claims adjudicated by the end of the month.
“U.S. DOL has praised the CNMI Department of Labor as a model program in the country because of its compliance with federal requirements and is set to receive additional funding for unemployment relief in order to further expedite payments. As a government, this administration is doing everything it can to get payments out to eligible claimants in the most expeditious way possible within the requirements of the program,” she said.